WALLS by Florence de Dampierre with photographs by Tim Street-Porter and Pierre Estersohn, New York, (Rizzoli: 2011)
By Jane Librizzi
Aside from the odd attempt to draw on the living room wall with my crayons, my first noteworthy encounter with wall art came when my parents took me to visit the summer home of a wealthy friend. The large Victorian house with the wrap around porch had been the family “cottage” since the late 19th century. In those days before air conditioning those who could afford to, sought refuge in the North Country from the summer heat.
In the main parlor, an octagon-shaped room, the walls were covered by a mural, painted in oils directly onto the plaster, their colors slightly faded by time. An itinerant painter long ago had recreated his freely imagined version of life at the court of Versailles in terms of upstate New York.
This room would have been a natural choice for Florence de Dampierre ‘s new book Walls. After arriving from London in 1985, de Dampierre opened a shop specializing in 18th and 19th century painted furniture which became the subject of her first book The Best of Painted Furniture (Rizzoli: 1987). She has often worked with photographer Tim Street-Porter and the ease and aptness showing in their current effort. An enthusiast of French chic, de Dampierre exercises a light hand in her designs and here imparts the fruits of her research deftly. Here is some of what I learned from reading Walls.
De Dampierre has scoured the world for striking examples of wall decoration to rival the pictures that hang in art galleries. As she points out, they offer some of the oldest clues to how people lived their lives as well as made their art.
France, of course, is home to the oldest known murals in the caves of Lascaux and Grotte de Peche-Merle. The fresco technique has been traced back to at least the 6th century BCE in Turkey and in ancient Egypt wall paintings adorned palaces and temples. But it was the introduction of oil-based painting in 15th century Flanders that provided the means for a new flowering of wall art, especially in Italy. One of the first stable pigments, named “Pompeian red” for the nymphs and satyrs entombed by lava in the late days of the Roman Empire. There are two types of wall painting: fresco secco where paint is applied to dry plaster and ‘true’ fresco is when tempura is painted over a thin coat of wet plaster. During the Italian Renaissance artists created works of technical virtuosity with both methods. Raphael and, after him Michelangelo created spectacular murals for the Vatican that are among the most reproduced works of wall art.
The 17th century Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens, used canvas to make wall murals, appropriating the portability of tapestry, a medium that had been around since the days of Babylonia and Assyria. A good insulator in cold, drafty houses, tapestries had been rolled up and displayed at public gatherings in an early instance of conspicuous consumption. Industrial production of tapestries began in 14th century Flanders and France, the country that produced such modern masters of the medium as Aristide Maillol and Raoul Dufy. Chinoiserie, the European imitation of Chinese art, became popular after Louis XIV made it his signature style at the court of Versailles. The Sun King went so far as to build a Chinese pavilion for his favorite mistress. The 18th century variation on this theme was the Singerie, wherein nymphs and fauns were replaced by monkey decorations. Watteau himself apprenticed under Claude Audran III, the man credited with putting singerie on the map with his “monkey Arbor” at Chateau de Marly. Nicoloa Santini, ambassador to Versailles, brought the new French style back to his home at Villa Torrigiana. Austrian Empress Maria Theresa also adopted the French style when she redecorated her garden rooms at Schloss Schonbrunn in Vienna.
The popularity of World’s Fairs, beginning in the late 19th century, created a demand for murals illustrating social and political events of the day. For a more genteel clientele, Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed this exquisite mural for Miss Cranston’s Buchanan Street Tearoom in Glasgow.. Art Deco designers reintroduced murals as home decoration the 1920s. Wood paneling, like tapestry, originated in the need to warm rooms before the advent of central heating. Covering stone walls with decorated wood panels provided a measure of insulation with a material that was plentiful and relatively cheap. This assured its rapid spread to the forested kingdoms of northern Europe. The trompe l’oeil pilasters and sylvan landscapes at Sandemar Manor in Sweden cover stone walls.
Intarsia, a mosaic-style of wood inlay, was another invention of Renaissance Italians, used by Paolo Uccello and Piero Della Francesca. The French took possession of woodwork by re-christening it as boiserie. However, one of the most spectacular examples by a French artists was Francois Cuvillies’, Hall of Mirrors, designed for the Schloss Nymphenburg in Munch. Stenciling, often relegated to crafts for children and the perennially bored, also had its genesis during the Paleolithic period, in the surprisingly modern-looking Grotte de Peche-Merle. Stencils were used to outline the hieroglyphs in ancient Egyptian tombs. There we first find the ever-popular lotus motif, whose flowers grew profusely along the banks of the Nile River. A versatile medium, stencils were used to create the faux marble walls in the Russian Imperial family’s Pavlovsk Palace (1816).
The popularity of stenciling in Colonial America was partly owing to the expense of wallpaper and partly due to sanitary considerations: bubbles in wallpaper provided moist, safe homes for vermin. Making a virtue of necessity, the Colonials made stencils stylish. For example, the stenciled arabesques that decorate painter Frederick Edwin Church’s home Olana were inspired by his travels in the eastern Mediterranean. On translating his ideas into construction, Church wrote: “I am obliged to imagine Persian architecture, then embody it on paper and explain it to a lot of mechanics whose idea of architecture is wrapped in felicitous recollections of a successful bricke (sic) schoolhouses or a jail.”
Of all wall decorations, stencils have evoked the greatest mixture of feelings. William Morris was for it, as an expression of the handcraft idea,l but the American decorator Elsie de Wolfe sniffed at it in her influential boo The House In Good Taste (1913). Beyond Wolfe’s circle of influence, stenciled decoration proliferated in warmer climates with brighter colors, as examples from Mexico and India show.
Wallpaper, the most commonly used wall decoration, degrades physically and can be difficult to remove. Blame it on the Egyptians: the oldest known sheets of papyrus wallpaper from ancient Egypt are in the collection of the Louvre in Paris. From China, the early use of paper spread to Japan and then westward along the Silk Route. In France, wallpaper evolved out of the fancy papers used in bookbinding to a full-fledged industry. In Sweden, the botanist Carolus Linnaeus used illustrations from books to paper the walls of his home at Hammarby. And then there is what is often considered a unparalleled favorite: chinoiserie. Its graceful scenes of flowers, trees, and vines strike a universal note while pagodas, wooden bridges and paper houses supply the novelty. The French, as is their wont, adopted it with a new name Papier Peint Paysage.
The author's experience as a lecturer at City Museum of New York City and curator at Caramoor made Walls more than an visuually appealing coffee table book. Of course Street-Porter’s photographs are gorgeous to look at, but the reader will come away from this book with an enhanced sense of history and a new way of looking at – and thinking about – what walls are for. Like de Dampierre’s previous book Chairs: A History (Abrams: 2008), this book will be become a valuable reference work for designers.
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